Perennial or biennial aromatic herb (Foeniculum vulgare) of the parsley family, native to southern Europe and Asia Minor and widely cultivated. The greenish brown to yellowish brown oblong oval seeds smell and taste similar to anise. The seeds and extracted oil are used for scenting soaps and perfumes and for flavouring candies, liqueurs, medicines, and foods, particularly pastries, sweet pickles, and fish. The thickened base of Florence fennel (F. vulgare dulce) is eaten as a vegetable.
Learn more about fennel with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum (treated as the sole species in the genus by most botanists). It is a hardy, perennial, umbelliferous herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves, grows wild in most parts of temperate Europe, but is generally considered indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, whence it spreads eastwards to India + Even in England in Bedfont Lakes Country Park and Thurrock . It has followed, especially where Romans have colonized, and may be found growing wild in many parts of the world upon dry soils near the sea-coast and upon river-banks. It is a member of the family Apiaceae. It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses, and is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. Fennel is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the Mouse Moth and the Anise Swallowtail.
The word fennel developed from the Middle English fenel or fenyl, which came from the Old English fenol or finol, which in turn came from the Latin feniculum or foeniculum, the diminutive of fenum or faenum, meaning "hay". The Latin word for the plant was ferula, which is now used as the genus name of a related plant. As Old English finule it is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century.
In Ancient Greek, fennel was called marathon (μάραθον), and is attested in Linear B tablets as ma-ra-tu-wo. John Chadwick notes that this word is the origin of the place name Marathon (meaning "place of fennel"), site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC; however, Chadwick wryly notes that he has "not seen any fennel growing there now". In Greek mythology, Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods. Also, it was from the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were said to have come.
Fennel is widely cultivated, both in its native range and elsewhere, for its edible, strongly-flavoured leaves and seeds. The flavour is similar to that of anise and star anise, though usually not as strong.
The Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Azoricum Group; syn. F. vulgare var. azoricum) is a Cultivar Group with inflated leaf bases which form a bulb-like structure. It is of cultivated origin, and has a mild anise-like flavour, but is more aromatic and sweeter. Its flavour comes from anethole, an aromatic compound also found in anise and star anise. Florence fennel plants are smaller than the wild type and have inflated leaf bases which are eaten as a vegetable, both raw and cooked. There are several cultivars of Florence fennel, which is also known by several other names, notably the Italian name finocchio. In North American supermarkets, it is often mislabelled as "anise".
Fennel has become naturalised along roadsides, in pastures, and in other open sites in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern Canada and in much of Asia and Australia. It propagates well by seed, and is considered an invasive species and a weed in Australia and the United States (see Santa Cruz Island).
Florence fennel was one of the three main herbs used in the preparation of absinthe, an alcoholic mixture which originated as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland and became, by the late 19th century, a popular alcoholic drink in France and other countries. Fennel itself is known to be a stimulant, although many modern preparations marketed under the name "absinthe" do not make use of it.
The bulb, foliage, and seeds of the fennel plant are widely used in many of the culinary traditions of the world. Fennel pollen is the most potent form of fennel, but also the most expensive. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavoured spice, brown or green in colour when fresh, slowly turning a dull grey as the seed ages. For cooking, green seeds are optimal. The leaves are delicately flavored and similar in shape to those of dill. The bulb is a crisp, hardy root vegetable and may be sauteed, stewed, braised, grilled, or eaten raw.
Fennel seeds are sometimes confused with those of anise, which are very similar in taste and appearance, though smaller. In India, it is common to chew fennel seed (or saunf) as a mouth-freshener. Fennel is also used as a flavouring in some natural toothpaste. Some people employ it as a diuretic. Others use it to improve the milk supply of breastfeeding mothers, but it has shown neurotoxicity in certain cases where the mother ingested it as an herbal tea to enhance her breast milk.
Fennel is most prominently featured in Italian cuisine, where bulbs and fronds appears both raw and cooked in side dishes, salads, pastas, and risottos. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and meatballs and northern European rye breads.
Many cultures in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East incorporate fennel seed into their culinary traditions. It is an essential ingredient in the Bengali/Oriya spice mixture panch phoron and in Chinese five-spice powders. It is known as saunf or mauti saunf in Hindi and Urdu, mouri in Bengali, shombu or peruncheeragam in Tamil language and Malayalam language, variyali in Gujarati, badeeshop or badeeshep in Marathi and barishap in the Malay language. In many parts of India roasted fennel seeds are consumed as an after-meal digestive and as a breath freshner.
Many egg, fish, and other dishes employ fresh or dried fennel leaves. Florence fennel is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads, often tossed with chicory and avocado, or it can be braised and served as a warm side dish. It may be blanched or marinated, or cooked in risotto. In all cases, the leaves lend their characteristically mild, anise-like flavour.
Fennel contains anethole, which can explain some of its effects: it, or its polymers, act as phytoestrogens. On account of its aromatic and carminative properties, Fennel is chiefly used medicinally with purgatives to allay their side effects and for this purpose forms one of the ingredients of the well-known compound Liquorice Powder. Fennel water has properties similar to those of anise and dill water: mixed with sodium bicarbonate and syrup, these waters constitute the domestic 'Gripe Water,' used to correct the flatulence of infants; it also can be made into a syrup to treat babies with colic or painful teething. Essential oil of Fennel has these properties in concentration. Fennel tea, formerly also employed as a carminative, is made by pouring boiling water on a teaspoonful of bruised Fennel seeds. Syrup prepared from Fennel juice was formerly given for chronic coughs. Fennel is also largely used for cattle condiments. It is one of the plants which is said to be disliked by fleas, and powdered Fennel has the effect of driving away fleas from kennels and stables. In the Indian subcontinent, Fennel seeds are also eaten raw, sometimes with some sweetener, to improve eyesight.
Osha does not do well in overly moist soils since it is a species dependent on mycorrhizal fungi to survive, but there are areas where Osha and Poison Hemlock can be found only a few feet from each other. Poison Hemlock lacks the "spicy celery" odor of Osha, and is easily distinguished from it due to the absence of hairlike dead leaf material present on the root crown of Osha roots. Poison Hemlock roots in many cases have no discernible odor, and are typically heavily branched rather than carrot-like, but this is not always the case. The plants themselves smell musty or "mousy", and in most instances will have purple blotches or shading on the lower stem of the plant if the plant is fairly mature, but again, this is not always the case.
In the Mountain West of North America, poison hemlock has become well established and invasive, and can be found in remote mountain areas anywhere water is present or soils are persistently moist. It is often found growing in the same habitat and side by side with Osha and Lomatium species, useful medicinal relatives in the Parsley family which Hemlock closely resembles, and can be very difficult to distinguish from Lomatium (an important historical food plant of Native Americans known as Biscuit Root).
A useful trick to determine whether a plant is poison hemlock rather than fennel, which it resembles, is to crush some leaves and smell the result. Fennel smells like anise or liquorice, whereas the smell of poison hemlock is often described as mouse-like or musty. Considering the high toxicity of poison hemlock, if the plant cannot be identified it must be discarded. Coniine can be absorbed through the skin, and it is well advised to wash your hands immediately after handling this plant and avoid touching your eyes or mouth if you have recently handled or come into contact with Poison Hemlock, or if you have crushed the leaves of this plant in your hand to perform a "smell test".
Poison hemlock is sometimes confused with water hemlocks in the related genus Cicuta., but are readily distinguished by the less finely divided leaves of the latter; the leaf veins of poison hemlock also run through the tips of the teeth, but those of the water hemlock run through the notches in between the teeth. The poison hemlock's root is long, white, and fleshy and is usually stringy and heavily branched, but can be carrot-like and unbranched in younger specimens of Conium. Water hemlock's roots are made up of several tubers, and are typically chambered, and excude a yellow, rank, highly toxic sap that contains cicutoxin
These plants all have white flowers in large compound umbels. Therefore, these plants are confused with each other; the water parsnip, (swamp parsnip, sium suave) and the western water hemlock, (Cicuta douglasii, poison hemlock) or the spotted water hemlock (cicuta maculata, spotted water hemlock, spotted parsley, spotted cowbane). Water parsnip and water hemlock both have cluster of small white flowers shaped like umbrellas, and both have the same habitat near the shore line of lakes, and rivers. Water parsnip has leaves only once compound, and water hemlock has leaves which are three times compound. Water hemlock has a large swelling at the stem base. All water hemlock is highly poisonous. Water parsnip is not poisonous. The water hemlock has bracts at the base of each small flower cluster, not at the base of the main flower head. The Water parsnip has small bracts at the base of flowers and main flower head as well. The Yarrow, (Common Yarrow, Gordaldo, Nosebleed plant, Old Man's Pepper, Sanguinary, Milfoil, Soldier's Woundwort, Thousand-leaf (as its binomial name affirms), Thousand-seal or Achillea millefolium) also has many small white flowers in a cluster. However, the yarrow has feathery looking leaves which are pinnately separated into small narrow segments. The cow parsnip (heracleum lanatum, Heracleum maxinium Indian Celery or Pushki, and Heracleum sphondylium, hogweed) is also confused in this group with similar flower groupings. However, the cow parsnip has large, broad leaves, and an unpleasant odour.